Kareem Hunt's Journey from Broke Draft Afterthought to Rookie Fantasy Stud

Dan PompeiNFL ColumnistOctober 2, 2017

Kansas City Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt (27) celebrates his touchdown against the New England Patriots during the first half of an NFL football game, Thursday, Sept. 7, 2017, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Kareem Hunt smiles when he talks. He smiles when he listens. His eyes smile, and his cheeks smile. 

If you went from being a kid who didn't have enough money to pay his electric bill earlier this year to a phenom who is lighting up the NFL, you'd smile too.

Heading into Monday night's game against the Redskins, Hunt has been the NFL's best running back. Through the first three weeks, he had more yards rushing yards than 26 teams.

"I'm just fighting for every yard," he says with a smile and a shrug. "I'm not giving up on any plays."

No one is supposed to have 538 yards from scrimmage in his first three games. In fact, no one has since Billy Sims did it just months after he was the first pick in the draft in 1980, according to Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk. And no one is supposed to score six touchdowns in his first three NFL games. Only two other players in history have that. Sims did it 37 years ago. And Edward "Dutch" Sternaman—better known as the co-founder of the Chicago Bears—did it in 1920 for the Decatur Staleys.

Hundreds of running backs would have been given a better chance to do it than Hunt, who has been underrated and overlooked since he first walked on a football field.

In high school, his coaches wouldn't let him play running back, making him a linebacker despite the fact that he had run for 700 yards and 10 TDs in one game once at the peewee level. It took an injury to another player for him to get his shot. Once he got it, over his junior and senior seasons at South High School in Willoughby, Ohio, he rushed for 5,204 yards and 83 touchdowns. His senior year, he averaged 11 yards per carry.

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Apparently, hardly anyone noticed. Hunt says he was told he was the 149th-ranked player in the state of Ohio. 247 Sports had him as the 108th-ranked running back in the country.

The only schools to offer him scholarships during recruiting season were Toledo, Pitt and Cincinnati. He committed to Toledo. Minnesota and Iowa came after him late, but he stuck with his commitment.

Hunt could deal with it, maybe because he was used to never being given much. He and an older brother were raised by a single mom who worked as a home healthcare aid. At times, they couldn't afford cable TV or a phone.

"Sometimes it was hard to buy enough groceries," his mom, Stephanie Riggins, says. "They didn't have the name-brand clothes like the other kids. But all he really cared about is if he could go outside and play sports."

As a Rocket, Hunt ran for 4,945 yards and averaged 6.3 yards per carry, both school records. It was the same old, same old when it came time for him to move up another level, though. NFL scouts were lukewarm. The consensus was that he was no better than the sixth-most talented running back in the draft after Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey, Dalvin Cook, Alvin Kamara and Joe Mixon.

NFL talent evaluators had different reasons for their indifference. Many cited the level of competition he faced at Toledo. Others were uncomfortable because he had 782 carries in college.

"He had a lot of mileage on him," one general manager says. "They used him a ton, so we had some concerns."

Then there were questions about his weight and speed. Was he a power back or a speed back? Or neither?

Hunt had weighed as much as 237 at Toledo, usually played at about 225 and weighed 208 at the Senior Bowl. At the combine, he was 216. At his pro day, he checked in at 220. So scouts wondered if he was undisciplined with his eating.

At the combine last March, Hunt ran the 40-yard dash in 4.62 seconds. At his pro day, he improved slightly to 4.57. The results said he wasn't going to have many breakaway runs.

David J. Phillip/Associated Press

Two evaluators who were more focused on his play speed were then-Chiefs general manager John Dorsey and Chiefs running backs coach Eric Bieniemy. Dorsey put his faith in Bieniemy's report and traded third-, fourth- and seventh-round picks to the Vikings to move up 18 spots in the third round to take Hunt 86th overall.

Being underrated serves Hunt well.

He smiles and says, "It gave me a chip on the shoulder. I took it to heart. I didn't like that feeling. I felt like I stacked up with Fournette, McCaffrey and Cook very equally. I know they are great backs, but I think highly of myself too. I feel I'm right up there with them."

It was a sunny spring day in OTAs, when the pads still were in deep storage. Hunt took a handoff, collided with a defender and somehow managed to stay on his feet.

Chiefs offensive linemen started talking about it. They noticed the same thing Dorsey had talked about in predraft meetings: Hunt's exceptional contact balance.

"He would get in awkward situations, and he wouldn't fall," offensive tackle Mitchell Schwartz says. "You thought he was going to fall, and then he bounces out of there."

Hunt continued to get the attention of teammates in training camp. During a live scrimmage a couple of weeks in, he broke two tackles and got outside. He found himself in a race to the end zone, and no one could catch him.

"Everyone kind of looked at each other," fullback Anthony Sherman remembers. "OK."

Hunt, benefitting from the coaching of Bieniemy, kept passing every test. Bieniemy is a coaching veteran who had been there and done that, with Adrian Peterson, Jamaal Charles, Maurice Jones-Drew and many others, and he was invested in Hunt. He coached him like his reputation was on the line.

Bring up Bieniemy's name, and Hunt smiles. "Coach Bieniemy brings out the toughness in his guys," he says. "He pushes you further than you think you can go. You think you have no more left, and he brings more out of you."

It's a good fit. Everything is. Kansas City. The Chiefs. This offense. Talking about it makes Hunt smile.

"It's a great place because we have a great team and a great coaching staff," he says. "I'm blessed to be in this offense. Guys like Alex [Smith] and Coach [Andy] Reid really love the game and are smart about it. Tyreek Hill, oh my God, he's a different animal. I haven't seen that type of speed before.

"They take really good care of the players here. They really love players in this town."

Ed Zurga/Associated Press

Hunt was supposed to be a backup, a complement to a player who never had more than modest success in the NFL. Then in the Chiefs' third preseason game, Spencer Ware suffered a season-ending knee injury. Hunt would be the starter, ready or not.

When Hunt lined up for his first NFL play against the Patriots in the NFL Kickoff Game on Sept. 7, he was feeling confident and prepared. He took the handoff from Smith and went off right tackle for a nice seven-yard gain. As he was going down, Patriots safety Jordan Richards got his hand on the ball and pushed it down, out of Hunt's grasp. It was the first fumble Hunt had lost in his life—going back to peewee days.

Reid went right back to him on the next series, and Hunt rewarded him with 246 scrimmage yards and three touchdowns that night. In his next two games, he made it to the end zone three times and rushed for 253 yards.

It became apparent quickly, whether he was running against Zips and Bobcats or Eagles and Chargers, Hunt was the same back.

"You see the same qualities you saw in college," Reid says. "He can do a lot of things for you. He can catch, he can block in pass protection, he can run inside or outside, you can flex him out."

Chiefs offensive coordinator Matt Nagy has said Hunt has rare versatility. That question scouts had about whether he was a power back or speed back apparently has been answered—he's both.

Steven Senne/Associated Press

Hunt says at times he tries to beast it up like Marshawn Lynch. But he also likes to try to shoot through defenses like a bullet out of a gun, the way Reggie Bush did back in the day for USC.

"I try to put a lot of guys' talents together and take a little of everybody's game," he says, smiling. "I take pride in being a do-it-all type of guy."

After three weeks, Hunt was averaging an NFL-best 4.21 yards after contact per attempt, according to Pro Football Focus. He also led the NFL with three runs of 40 yards or more and five runs of 20 yards or more.

So much for not having breakaway speed.

"He plays at the speed he timed," Reid says. "Most guys, you put 30 pounds [of equipment] on, and it slows you down. That's not the case with him. He maintains his speed."

Hunt knew his 40 time was misleading.

"I don't know if it was a bad day or a bad get-off," he says with a smile. "In high school I ran a 10.7 100-yard dash. I was training at IMG Academy and running high 4.4s. And besides, game speed is different."

This is what it's like to be Kareem Hunt these days.

Six hundred or so texts after a game. About 120 interview requests in three weeks. Roughly 50,000 new Instagram followers. Countless autograph requests at the grocery store, the movies and Topgolf, where he likes to kick back.

It makes him smile.

"It's a huge change for a guy who has been underrated his whole life," he says. "I want to keep it going. It's been exciting. It's a good feeling. It means a lot."

Hunt isn't popular just in Kansas City. He's popular wherever fantasy football is played. Yes, he knows you drafted him cheap, or picked him up as a free agent, or traded for him or won because of him. But he really isn't into fantasy football—in fact, he's never played. "My phone," he says with a smile, "is getting blown up by fantasy football. And I don't even like fantasy football."

What he likes is playing Madden 18. He is in an online league with friends, and he drafted himself in that. Considering his player rating—a 79, tied for 45th among halfbacks—he might have been better off drafting someone else. But he smiles just thinking about playing as himself.

"It's great just to be on Madden," he says. "It's a dream come true. But I feel they have some work to do on my guy."

Hunt can afford some things now he couldn't earlier this year—like bills. In the spring, he and two roommates didn't have enough to pay the electric bill, so they abandoned their apartment for a week-and-a-half. When Hunt was drafted, he paid the $800 bill himself and told his friends not to worry about their share.

And Hunt is as revered by the people around him as he is by the people who drafted him in fantasy.

"He knows where rookies stand and does whatever he can to help out," says Sherman, who never had to carry his pads in from practice in training camp when Hunt was around. "He's such a good kid. It's great to have him in the room."

He is a "joy to be around," according to Schwartz. "Nice guy, nice face," he says.

Hunt, fresh, authentic and joyful, is a feel-good story in an NFL season in need of one.

And he cannot stop smiling.

Says Hunt, "I'm just happy to be here."


Dan Pompei covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @danpompei.

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